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Fears grow over Indonesia's terrorism threat after recent attacks

Reactivation of Bali bombings group adds to peril of pro-Islamic State cells

Armed police officers stand guard along a closed road following an explosion outside a Catholic church in Makassar, South Sulawesi province, Indonesia, on March 28.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Two attacks and the arrest of nearly 100 suspects in recent weeks show that Islamist terrorism remains a substantial threat in Indonesia -- both from pro-Islamic State cells and a potential revival of an old regional network.

A suicide bomb attack on March 28 outside a church in Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi province, took the nation by surprise, given the collapse of Islamic State in Syria and the perception that the pandemic was stifling local cells.

Fourteen people were injured, and only the perpetrators -- a newly-married couple in their 20s -- were killed. The pair were affiliated with Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD), a local group that has pledged its allegiance to IS.

This was the first major terrorist attack in Indonesia since a series of attacks in East Java Province in May 2018, including suicide bombings at three churches in the provincial capital of Surabaya that left more than 20 people dead. The attackers, who made up half of those killed, were also affiliated with JAD members.

Three days after last month's attack, a 25-year-old woman opened a fire at the national police headquarters in Jakarta. She was fatally shot by police before being able to injure anyone. Police said she was a pro-IS lone wolf.

The lack of fatalities in the two recent attacks is in line with the observations of some experts that the capacity of Indonesian terrorist groups is weakening. But they also highlight the risk of more sporadic actions by smaller cells and lone wolves that are harder to detect by security officers.

Former terrorist convict Ali Imron warned of lingering threats despite more aggressive arrests by the Indonesian police's anti-terror squad, the Detachment 88, in the past few years.

"Many people are still scrambling to enlist as suicide attackers. They intend it as jihad, [believing] it promises an enormous reward and that dying as a martyr is the most noble death," Imron said in a TV interview last week.

National Intelligence Agency deputy head Wawan Hari Purwanto said the Makassar attack is likely an act of revenge following a police raid in January that led to the arrest of 20 members of the Makassar branch of JAD and the killing of two of them. Police said the branch was connected to bombings of a cathedral in Jolo, southern Philippines, in 2019, which killed 20 people.

The lone wolf attack in Jakarta, despite not being affiliated with JAD, was likely inspired by the Makassar one.

"These were also related to ISIS' calls -- as it went into disarray -- for its followers to launch attacks in their respective countries," Purwanto told a webinar this week.

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based think tank, wrote in a January report that JAD no longer has a national leadership, following the widespread arrests in the wake of the Surabaya bombings, including those of its senior leaders. Only a few regional branches are still functioning, with local leaders taking decisions on their own. They had been mostly lying low -- until the Makassar attack.

IPAC noted that of the more than 200 terrorist suspects arrested in Indonesia in 2020, more than half were affiliated with pro-IS cells that had no connection to either JAD or Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen, a tiny pro-IS insurgency group with limited operations in Central Sulawesi.

Terrorism researcher Soffa Ihsan said the lack of a central leadership poses its own threats.

"The lack of a binding structure means [small] terror cells could move freely. [They] could become more difficult to eradicate," said Ihsan, also director of Daulat Bangsa Foundation, which conducts terrorism research and a deradicalization program.

"They might change their modus operandi... for example by involving more family members, children and women -- people who have not traditionally been regarded as soldiers."

Observers have noted a disturbing trend of a growing involvements of women in local terrorism activities, defying their traditional roles as housewives in typical fundamentalist families. The trend has been substantiated in the two recent attacks, as well as the Surabaya bombings where a woman and her four small children joined her husband as suicide bombers.

"This shows that pro-ISIS movements are not only about men exploiting vulnerable women, but also give room to women who eagerly want to be acknowledged as fighters," Ihsan told Nikkei Asia. "The evolution of women's roles and the gender equality heighten terrorism risks."

An armed policeman stands in front of what remains of the Padi club in the Kuta tourist area, near Denpasar, on the Indonesian island of Bali following a car bomb that killed 202 people there in 2002.   © AFP/Jiji

Another threat comes from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Al-Qaeda-linked regional terror network whose cells spanned Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines during its peak. The group was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people and some other major terror attacks in Indonesia in the 2000s.

JI, seen as anti-IS, has largely been dormant in the past decade, with JAD and other pro-IS cells and their weaker capacity dominating Indonesia's terrorism scene.

But following the 2018 revision of Indonesia's anti-terror law, which gives Detachment 88 more power and allows them to detain suspects for a longer period, there has been an increase in arrests of JI members -- from 26 in 2019 to 63 last year. Over half of the 94 terror suspects arrested since the beginning of the year are affiliated with JI.

Police said they found evidence of paramilitary training activities by JI, and a bunker believed to be prepared to assemble homemade explosives and guns. Among last year's arrests are two high-profile JI fugitives that had been on the police's top wanted list for 14-18 years, both of whom are believed to be skilled at crafting homemade bombs and firearms.

Police said the group has been collecting money to finance its activities through thousands of charity boxes it has placed in mosques, restaurants and convenience stores across the country -- under the guise they are collecting money for orphanages or Islamic boarding schools. JI has also been found to run entrepreneurship workshops for some of its members to increase their financial capacity.

"Based on Detachment 88's investigations, the group... is planning terrorism actions to spread worries and fears among the public, specifically targeting security officers," National Police spokesman Rusdi Hartono told reporters in March.

Police said that like pro-IS groups, JI also had sent dozens of its members to Syria in recent years.

Ihsan said JI members went there to support the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, a rival of IS. More importantly, he believes they were likely dispatched to accrue combat skills, similar to JI fighters' involvements in the Afghanistan War prior to the Bali bombings. Meanwhile, in Indonesia they have been focusing on preaching and religious outreach to widen its support base -- including through some Islamic boarding schools in Java.

"JI believes that an Islamic state must be established, gradually through stages," Ihsan said. "Groups like ISIS and JI will continue to dream for a territory. [For] JI it might start with Indonesia, and then Southeast Asia, and later worldwide -- despite the idea being utopian."

In its January report, IPAC said the danger from JI "has not been an imminent attack." Rather, it is "the emergence of a militant splinter impatient at the [current] leadership's avoidance of violence" in the group's pursuit of a long-term strategy of building up an economic and political base.

Overall, IPAC said, "As Indonesia looks ahead, the threat from violent extremism looks to remain manageable: nothing to undermine political stability and nothing beyond police capacity to manage."

"But terrorism has not gone away, and there will be ongoing efforts of small cells to regroup, recruit and regenerate with the aim of conducting jihad operations."

Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti.

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